“The Nudist Writer”

underwood_nude_1910sIt should come as no surprise by now that I choose to live my life sans clothing. Naked is my default state. I long for the day when I can be free from the branding of Polo and Ralph Lauren. I only feel myself when I am wearing nothing.

But far more important to me is writing. I eat, drink and breathe storytelling. On many occasions I have gotten out of bed with a plot in my head. From the time I was six, I have been coming up with adventures, and that was thirty-seven years ago. Story matters. As Ursula K LeGuin put it, “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel … is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”

While Mark Twain famously advised to “write what you know,” LeGuin said, in response, that she writes about dragons because what she knows is dragons. Fantasy storytellers draw from personal experience while adding from the fruits of their imagination. Herman Melville tapped into his experiences on a whaling ship to create Moby Dick. In the same way, I know what it’s like to leave my clothes behind to explore the woods, to search rocky shorelines without a stitch to my name, to socialize without body taboos. I have also experienced the sense of shame imposed upon me by those who would judge my lifestyle as perverse or just plain weird, as have my naked heroes, Xandr and Thelana.

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Nudism informs my writing, even when my characters don’t think the way I do. Shame is a universal trait, and I would be a poor writer to neglect it. But what we wear, or don’t, is a big part of who we are. It is entrenched in our history and religion, and reflects strongly upon our values. A society’s attitude toward the human body speaks volumes about that society. Do they consider themselves a part of the animal hierarchy or apart from it? Do they shun the physical world, and the senses associated with it, or seek a more spiritual reality? Answering these questions provides a fictional world of greater richness and realism.

Having a unique perspective, we are told, is a good thing. But unlike atheism, LGBTQ+ or even, if Fifty Shades is any indication, bondage porn, I increasingly get the sense that nudism is just too different. Time and again, agents have rejected Ages of Aenya on the grounds that the concept isn’t “trending.” When I attempted to advertise my novel via social media, both Facebook and Twitter called the book, with its innocent cover of Thelana, “sex services.” Even Barnes & Nobles shied away from my offer to host a signing event, despite the many racier covers adorning their shelves. It would seem nudity is OK, but only in a sexual context.

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Sex services. Obviously.

It isn’t as though our sense of touch is entirely alien. Who doesn’t enjoy sunshine on their bare skin? A hot shower? Cool bedsheets after a session of lovemaking? Advertisers, all the while, continually use words like “nude” and “naked” to suggest their products are honest and all-natural. Clearly, nakedness is a good thing, and on some deep level we all know this.

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The nude archetype persists in our subconscious. We all wish for the same confidence, strength and beauty embodied by the heroic nude. It is an expression that has been with us since the Ancient Greeks, and continues to this day in the form of the superhero, who is all but nude but for the coloring of the skin, and in ESPN’s celebration of athletes.

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The heroic nude in modern times

We are simultaneously repulsed and attracted by the human form. This dichotomy, I believe, stems from an overemphasis on demographics. Fiction must be placed either in the Children, Adult, or YA sections, and nudity can never fall into any category but porn, because in our modern world nudity = porn. And it should be noted here, that DC’s recent adult comic, Batman: Damned, showcasing Bruce’s penis for the first time, is far from a nudist portrayal, as his genitals are made the emphasis of the panel, existing for no other purpose but to shock.

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Enlightened heroines are expected to wear full plate armor, without so much as hinting at the female shape beneath. This is considered progress, an improvement over the hyper sexualized covers of the 60s and 70s, and likely the reason Thelana isn’t trending. But it is progress leading to a more sterilized world, where neither sex is recognized. Equality could just as well have been achieved by giving the female hero agency, and stripping the male of equal parts clothing. Gone are the gods and heroes of church ceilings and museum walls, the renderings of mankind so proudly and masterfully born of the hands of Leonardo and Michelangelo, and this to me is a tragedy, because in censoring how we portray others, we turn every person into a potential object, a thing to satisfy our most basic urges.

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The modern heroine

This isn’t to say women in chainmail bikinis are preferable. On the contrary, Brienne of Tarth, and Netflix’ She-Ra, is a welcome change. What I am saying, rather, is that a woman need not be objectified, regardless of what she is or isn’t wearing, and that we need not choose between our sexuality and our humanity. In our current MeToo generation, we pretend to have matured beyond smut, while creating secret identities to wallow in the worst of PornHub. Instead of learning to express our desires in meaningful, honest and healthy ways, or reaching out to better understand the opposite sex, we have chosen to don the facade of robots devoid of passion. This societal schism, this partitioning of people into categories, cannot lead to a better world. More than anything, we need the heroic nude, our David and Heracles, our Mowgli and Tarzan and John Carter and, dare I say, our Xandr. We must embrace role models that embody the full gamut of what it means to be human, sexuality and all.

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Fantasy covers of the 70s

I am a nudist and a writer, and my fear is that I will be pigeonholed, that my work will be confined to an esoteric niche group. After all, we don’t typically call people gay writers, or Catholic writers, or Japanese writers—or by any other aspects of their identity—unless that identity becomes a focal point of their work, “feminist writer,” for example. Still, nudism is far from a fetish. It addresses a much broader spectrum that includes feminism and environmentalism, and it speaks to our most revered cultural values. While you may not see Sam Harris or Jordan Peterson debating the merits of nudism any time soon, it should be noted that they both conform closely to societal norms, of not simply wearing clothes, but wearing very specific types of clothing. Whether it’s President Trump or Barack Obama, Ken Ham or Neil deGrasse Tyson, ties and jackets are mandatory if one is to take your arguments seriously. This only goes to show how entrenched body taboos have become in our world. But while my upcoming second and third novels will have no naked heroes in it, to shy away from calling myself a nudist would betray everything I am, and rob the literary landscape from a rarely heard voice. Like Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman and Robert Heinlein, all of whom shared nudist proclivities, I stand outside of convention, and challenge the status-quo. I am Xandr standing at the gates of Hedonia, calling out against hypocrisy, searching for the lost innocence of Ilmarinen.

Least Likely to Become a Nudist: A Memoir: Part 6: Finding Love in a Clothes-Minded World

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Love

I was born with a cleft lip. If you’ve never seen pictures, let me just say it can get pretty ugly. Basically, it looked like a mugger took a knife to my mouth as I exited the womb. The doctors did their best to sew me up, but the scar remained. As a result of the surgery, my nose was lopsided, with one nostril higher than the other. I did not suffer any adverse effects except for some psychological damage, because kids can be assholes. “What happened to your face?” was a question I often got asked, but I played it up cool, which worked better in my teen years. “There was a gang! I fought them off the best I could.”

For years, I tried not to think about my looks, avoiding mirrors when possible, but then high school happened and a girl named Leah. She crushed me hard. I wrote her a long poem on reams of dot matrix paper and she read it to our entire 11th grade English class. I turned every shade of red with every tortured metaphor. The evidence was all over my face, literally. I was so embarrassed, I might just as well have been bare-ass naked. Of course, Leah didn’t exactly jump into my loving arms, for you see, at that time I had to worry not only about my cleft lip nose, but a terminal case of acne. Kids in the hall used to turn just to get a better look. “Shit, did you see that guy’s face?” I also wore thick-rimmed glasses and was about as plump as an animated Tim Burton character. And this was long before “I Love Nerds” T-shirts, so girls weren’t exactly lining up to ask me to the prom.

Then in Greece one year, my uncle called to me, “Hey, Hermes.” I was in my underwear at the time, and as any mainland Greek will tell you, this is the highest compliment you can give a guy. Hermes by Praxiteles is a statue from the Classical age, representing the messenger god, and like Michelangelo’s David, stands as an ideal of male beauty. Which got me to thinking. Me? Hermes? My uncle is quite the exaggerator, but he didn’t say it in an ironic way, I am sure. So I checked with the mirror and sure enough, I could find nothing hideous about me, other than my cleft lip. After that, I started to think that maybe I’d look better in the nude. At the very least, it’d draw attention away from my face.

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Hermes

By the time I was in my 20’s, now a frequent visitor to Paradise Lakes, my confidence shot through the roof. My acne was no more, thanks to a dangerous drug called Accutane; a surgery at eighteen corrected much of my disfigurement; and I’d even gained a few pounds. More than that, naturism taught me the illusory nature of beauty. But I still had a problem and it weighed on me heavily, more than my nudist secret ever did. Paradise was full of couples, but I was by myself, alone. I needed a girlfriend, someone like Nicole, or an older version of Britney, but like Mr. Lee told me, single women were a rarity. My only chance was to find someone from the outside, clothing-loving world and introduce her to the lifestyle. But what crazy girl would agree to such a thing? Keep in mind, this was before online dating and my wooing skills were nonexistent. I mean I wasn’t exactly a player. Thanks to my cleft lip nose, and extreme social awkwardness, due, in part, to being locked in my house for a decade, I’d never even kissed a girl. And the more I thought about it, the more it dawned on me that my nudist days were soon to be behind me. Did I really want to risk a potential relationship just to play nude volleyball in a nursing home?

Being a restaurant manager can have its advantages, especially if you’re looking for love. Is it legal to date your employees? I don’t think so. But I never really thought of myself as “the boss.” I was just a college kid looking after my parent’s business, and far from the pervert some people imagine nudists to be, I was like the Amish when it came to sex. My brother, meanwhile, who never showed interest in social nudity, hit the clubs every weekend looking for a one-night-stand.

I found it easiest to talk to hostesses, who had nothing to do but greet customers and roll silverware. That’s how I met Maria. She was Greek, incidentally, and a few years younger than me. Ideal marriage material, if you were to ask my parents. But she was a big time flirt. Now, if you’re in the restaurant business, you know when a girl casually eats from your plate or drinks from your straw, she’s not afraid of getting your cooties. We used to share food all the time and not just pizza. And as you can imagine, two forks and one- spaghetti can lead to some pretty Lady and the Tramp situations. Eventually, we ended up at my parent’s place while they were off in Greece. She was eager to toss off her pants and watch porn, and later expressed an interest in taking nude photos (of herself, not me, silly). Being ever the gentlemen, I did not think to press my advantage, but photos? What guy can pass up nude photos? Now, for all you young people reading this, imagine a time before sexting, when taking naked selfies was especially challenging. Nobody had camera phones in those days, and you simply couldn’t drop a roll of sexy-time memories off at Walgreens without getting asked some serious questions. But I had a solution. It was this new fangled thing called a digital camera. So, as Maria sat on my bed readying for our Playboy shoot, I rifled through my desk to find—where the fuck is my camera? My brother, as it turns out, had stolen it! I was sure upset at the time, but looking back on it now, I should probably thank him. Given the butterfly effect, my kids today might not exist, and I’d be far less happily married. For you see, while Maria had little trouble getting naked, she was a shallow person, often judging people by their looks. She’d have hated Paradise Lakes if it weren’t stocked with Calvin Klein models.

But Maria wasn’t my only prospect. Jaime was a waitress who seemed into me, your typical blonde, all-American girl-next-door who liked to paint. When I asked her what she thought about nudity, she remarked, “I wish clothes had never been invented!” So . . . Jackpot? Not exactly. Nudism matters a great deal to me, but there’s more to my personality, and to love. At around the same time, I met another girl at the mall who made crepes. She was short and cute and just a little bit shy, but she always seemed to smile when I asked for my usual banana and Nutella combo. Somehow, I managed the courage to ask her out, and we talked well into the night about our favorite writers and philosophers. By contrast, Maria and Jaime wouldn’t have known Jean-Paul Sartre from Britney Spears. So when Valentines Day rolled around, I knew I had a decision to make. Maria was waiting for me, because we always went out that day, but there was also crepe girl, who was smart and considerate and I loved being around her even when we just sat on her couch doing nothing. Only problem? I couldn’t have met a girl further from the nudist lifestyle had I tried. Crepe girl was fairly timid, covering her backside with a jean jacket wherever we went, but that was the least of my worries, for she was living in America on a student visa from—I kid you not—a Muslim country. Far from the carefree attitude of the Greek isles, in her country, religiously observant women cover from head to toe, and the beach is just a field for boys to kick a soccer ball around as families mill about the sand in their Sunday Friday best, with nary a bikini in sight. Heck, not only would you never find unicorn girl here, she’d immediately get thrown in a Midnight Express dungeon. Or worse.

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Far from the Greek isles

When it comes to my life, it seems, God has a weird sense of humor. There was every possibility she’d be leaving me for her homeland upon finishing her studies, or go running for the mosque should she discover my nudist proclivities. But it was worth the risk, because I loved her, even if I had to give up the things that made me who I am. I don’t know how I broached the subject of nudism, but I did, not wanting to end up married ten years still harboring a secret. Whatever her response, I knew I owed her the truth.

Love, it seems, can make you do things, stupid things, crazy things, things you’d never imagine doing. On our first visit to Paradise, I assured her that clothing was very much optional. But what made her feel awkward was everyone else. Societal norms had flipped on her, and she became the odd one out, the crazy person in a one piece. Just like my mother, she hated any appearance of impropriety. Honestly, I think she’d have loved to live during the days of poofy wigs and corsets. But when in Rome, she’d be first in a toga. So by our second visit, she got out of my Volkswagen Beetle proclaiming, “Who needs bathing suits?” and what took me years to build up the courage to do, she did in a week. My younger, timid self could never have made that jump. But love is a powerful thing.

And that’s when I realized crepe-making Muslim girl was far better than a born-nudist, because she was willing to meet me halfway. For me. For shy me, for cleft lip me, for ugly me. She wasn’t a unicorn, but something better, a girl like me. Least likely to become a nudist.

Just last week, my wife and I returned from a naturist resort in Cancun. And in case you’re not following, yes, I married that crepe girl. We’ve been together fifteen years now and, during that time, managed to pop out two clones. Both are of my wife. I mean, really, the relatives say I wasn’t even there, but that’s probably for the best. And while we’re far from the nudist family I’d dreamed about, every night when I climb into bed and look at those three identical faces, I am reminded how incredibly fortunate I am. The main thing, of course, I am loved. But aside from that, I no longer panic when the car door slams in the driveway because I forgot where I put my shorts. Around my wife and kids, I can be myself, and I think that’s what nudism is all about. Just being yourself. And we are teaching our kids to do the same. To know that they are loved, and that they are beautiful, just the way they are.

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Family

As of this writing, I am 41 years old, too old for young naturist events, and yet it has taken me this long to figure out why nudism caters mostly to people over sixty. That’s just how long it takes for some people to come out to friends and family, to overcome shame, to realize the truth. From parents, religion, and the media, we are pressured into believing that the human body is shameful and obscene, a thing to hide and be disgusted by, but that it is sometimes, paradoxically, beautiful and arousing. But this is a lie—the most prevalent lie in history. A great many more people never overcome the “shame of being human,” going to their graves fully dressed. In church clothes no less.

Perhaps in some ways, I never fully overcame my repressed childhood. My wife, who is tolerant of nudism, still makes fun of me. “That’s your philosophy,” she says, “being naked?” But nudism, I tell her, isn’t about nakedness—strippers aren’t nudists, after all—it’s about being alive. At some point in our history, in our rush to evolve and separate from nature, we’ve forgotten that life isn’t merely to be seen and heard, but to be felt as well. We have forgotten that our bodies make us what we are—human—and there is no shame in being human, or in being without clothes, or being seen without clothes. To be naked is simply to be oneself. A breast or a penis or a vagina is no more embarrassing than an ear or an elbow. Body parts are only as significant as our society makes them.

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Free at last!

Missed Parts 1 through 5? Search “Least Likely to Become a Nudist”

Special thanks to Felicity Jones and Jordan Blum for first posting this story on their blog!

Why Don’t We Live in a Perfect (Nude) World?

Confession time: I would live naked 24/7, if I could, and I suspect I am not alone in this regard. I hate clothes. They block the sunshine, the air, and most of your body from the sense of touch. They are grating, hot, and sometimes they itch, not to mention expensive and a lot of work to maintain. How much time is wasted washing, drying and folding underwear? How much water, for that matter? I believe there are many thousands, possibly millions of people, who would go without clothing if given the chance.

Cold weather and sunburn aside, clothing doesn’t seem to serve much purpose. Some people argue that it is necessary for adornment, to make us stand out, but jewelry, body paint, piercings, and tattoos can also be used to accentuate the body and express one’s individuality. If anything, a society free of body taboos allows for greater fashion possibilities. Imagine an outfit from the future, made without the restrictions imposed by shame? As for me, the unclad body is infinitely more beautiful. Evolution has been designing us for millions of years. Through a process of sexual selection, we have been deciding the qualities we find most appealing in men and women.

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Nudism allows for more fashion, not less. Here, Rihanna attends the 2014 CFDA fashion awards in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

Conservatives insist clothing keeps us from engaging in wanton sex, but any nudist will tell you that an orgy has never “broken out” at a clothing-optional resort, and in fact, becoming accustomed to bare skin helps us to control unwanted urges. In Muslim countries, women are often blamed for rape, the assumption being that men cannot resist revealing attire. While sexual violence is never excusable, accusing the victim is always more prevalent in societies with stricter dress codes. Liberal minded individuals, on the other hand, contend that clothing is simply our natural state of being, that we are animals with removable layers.

Ages ago, we lost our fur (we’re actually in the process of losing it still) to shed body heat quickly, which helped our ancestors chase down prey over long stretches of land. Even today, a marathon runner can outlast a horse in a long distance race. Clothing appears to have been a byproduct of losing our fur. But the parts of the body we choose to hide is largely dependent on climate, which, in turn, impacts local culture. Compare the burqa worn by Afghan women to the nakedness customary to the Bororo people. The Sahara is dry and hot and saps needed moisture from the body. Covering the head and mouth is necessary for survival in the desert. After a time, this survival technique became culturally conditioned, and as Islam spread throughout the world, so did the practice of covering the head. Conversely, the Amazon rain forest, where the Bororo live, is humid and warm, ideal conditions for nakedness.

But our lives are no longer dictated by climate, at least to the extent it once was. Throughout the world, most people rely on some form of air conditioning, so that, even in a country not ideally suited to nudity, clothing need not be worn. In Munich, Germany, there are public parks with “urban naked zones,” even though, for much of the year, the cold makes it impractical; while in Scandinavia, getting into the sauna wearing anything but a smile is greatly frowned upon. Cap ‘d’agde, France, is perhaps the freest city on Earth, as tourists can literally go anywhere, from the bank to the grocery store, in nothing but their birthday suits. But if this were a perfect world, we would not have to travel halfway across the world to enjoy such simple pleasures. We could all choose to visit a park, the beach, or even the mall as God intended. So why don’t we live in such a world? More to the point, why does the thought of public nudity strike most people with dread?

There are numerous factors to consider, of course, like religion and the media. But in a world that has largely come to accept homosexuality, religion does not hold the sway it once did. Even the fashion industry, which profits from making women feel unattractive, is losing its influence. Beauty pageants are becoming a thing of the past, a product of a more sexist age, and far fewer women are wearing makeup than decades ago. But while athletes, actresses and singers pose nude without scandal, they are having little effect on the nakedness taboo, at least when it comes to the general public. Part of the reason is the photographer’s lens, which is a form of cover in itself. The artistry of movies and magazines, much like in the Renaissance, allows for cultural exceptions. Despite our increasingly secular and liberal society, public nudity continues to shock. It’s not simply a matter of popularity. It’s not as if skin isn’t trending. For 99% of people, stepping naked beyond your front door is like jumping from a plane without a parachute. But why?

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It’s OK to be nude in a magazine, if you look like this and you’re famous.

Sure, we have nude beaches and resorts, but those who frequent them represent a tiny minority. Where are the nude cities? The nude countries? Nudists have always been outliers, challengers to the status-quo. We argue over 2% of skin, from coin-sized nipples to square inch pubic regions, which seems silly if you think about it. There is hardly any difference between a bikini and total nakedness, yet everyday beach goers never think to cross that line. It is not as if they hold some deep seated beliefs about modesty. We all do what society expects of us, just as Muslim women rarely consider the moral implications of the hijab. The freedoms we enjoy in America, from not having to wear the swimsuits of the 1900’s, is a thing we take for granted. Proper attire has everything to do with time and place. A woman in a miniskirt might get called a whore, but a grandmother in a one piece, by virtue of being on a beach, is deemed more modest. Once, it was taboo to go to certain venues without slacks and a dress jacket, like to church or a fancy restaurant, and we are likely to be shocked if the president addresses the nation in only a tank top.

In most situations, nakedness elicits a sense of shame, and shame can be a powerful emotion, one that overrides our reason. Sometimes, it can even be destructive. Sexual predators use shame to hide their actions. It is a tool used also by racists and bigots. For how long have LGBT people lived in fear of public humiliation and ridicule? Peer pressure is another form of shaming. The desire to “fit in” can be so powerful, teenagers will ignore their better judgment to engage in destructive behaviors, like drinking, smoking, using drugs and having unprotected sex. But the question remains, why does shame have such a powerful impact? The need for acceptance is as primal as that for food and water. Again, the question is why?

Like most of human nature, the answer can be traced to evolution. If the Discovery show, Naked and Afraid XL, has taught me anything, it’s that primitive survival is hard. We are a social species, relying on one another for our basic needs. The romantic notion of Adam and Eve, living alone in the wilderness, is just that, a notion. While real-world examples of Tarzan, Mowgli and Robinson Crusoe have been recorded, they are always the exception, never the rule. Our earliest ancestors lived in communal groups, divvying tasks to each member of the group. While a small band of young men went hunting, those who stayed behind had to raise the young, stoke the fires, maintain the shelters, find and maintain clean sources of water, and gather fruits, nuts and vegetables. Every one of these jobs was essential to survival, and no one person could be expected to perform them all. Even the best, modern day survivalists depend on modern equipment, medicine, emergency paramedics, and a home to return to, if all goes bad. This is why we have such a strong need to “fit in”—because, in prehistoric times, not fitting in could very well mean a death sentence. Shame, then, is a gauge to help us determine how best to fit in, to better align ourselves with our communities. People with no sense of shame were likely to become outcasts, who did not survive to pass on their genes. Maybe this is where we get the phrase, “I’d die of embarrassment,” because, historically speaking, “dying from embarrassment” was a legitimate concern.

Today, we no longer worry about survival like we once did. If we are socially ostracized, we have the option to move to another community. Nobody is likely to “die of embarrassment” anymore. But shame continues to be a part of us, just like our spleens. This is why we can never live in a perfect, free world. Even the staunchest of nudists are prone to this gene. Free body articles (like this one) pop up almost on a daily basis, but I can count on one hand the number of bloggers willing to offer their real names, or to post nude selfies. Those of us who long for a nude world continue to hide in anonymity, never telling our coworkers, friends or families what we believe. Though we can never hope to get rid of shame entirely, we can change the things we consider shameful. Just like in the Amazon, Celtic Europe and Ancient Greece, nudism can become our tradition, so that when someone in the future goes to a beach, the only exposure they’ll have to worry about is exposure to the sun.

I once dated a girl who had never visited a nudist venue. Before meeting me, going nude in front of anything but her bathroom mirror was unthinkable. But she liked me a lot, and was willing to join me in an outing to Paradise Lakes. To make her feel at ease, I stressed that she didn’t have to go au natural if she didn’t feel like it, since the resort was clothing optional. But after an hour of lounging by the pool, she started to feel out of place. She was in a different community, where everyone was naked. I kept telling her, “It’s OK, don’t worry about it,” but eventually, out of a sense of shame, she got rid of her bathing suit.

We may not live in a perfect nude world, but the Ilmar do, or did for most of their history. In Ages of Aenya, I envision a world where clothes do not exist. When this primeval paradise is lost to climate change, Xandr and Thelana are forced to confront civilization, and the prejudice that comes from rejecting the human body. You can read about the Ilmar and their adventures by following the link below. It is the first naturist epic fantasy written by a lifelong naturist.

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NOW AVAILABLE

 

 

Fifty Shades of Nudism

This is what shame looks like, folks!

After my first visit to Paradise Lakes clothing optional resort, I had a dilemma. To tell or not to tell? Eventually, I figured, I could never be happy unless I let the cat (or should that be penis?) out of the bag. I eventually told everyone I knew, family members, friends, coworkers, you name it. Their reaction was odd bemusement, mostly, “You? You’re that kind of person?” Another friend asked the direct question, “So, is there lots of sex there?” This was a girl with her share of provocative escapades. Of course, I had to correct her, explaining that the place was innocent, for families with young children. If they had understood nudism, I believe their reaction would have been the opposite. “Oh, you? That makes sense.” Truth is, I am and have always been extremely reserved. I am an introvert and I hate being the center of attention. I do not go clubbing, have never smoked or done drugs, and have never once tasted alcohol. The girl who took my virginity is the person I married. Hell, the Amish have lived it up more than I have.

For me, nudism has always been about innocence, the fact that we can look at our bodies without thinking of sex. Once everyone knew of my peculiar lifestyle, everything went back to normal. Nobody ignored me or tried to humiliate me. If anything, the truth disarmed them. They just didn’t know what to say. A decade and a half later, I found myself with a similar dilemma. Do I come out to the world on the Internet? Well, in July of 2012, I did just that. And, not surprisingly, I did not become a social leper. Just look at the numbers:

Posts

Entry
Pageviews
Jul 3, 2012, 15 comments
10947
Dec 22, 2012, 8 comments
7056
Feb 24, 2012, 2 comments
5125
Nov 21, 2012, 54 comments
1719
Oct 22, 2013, 6 comments
1281
Jul 29, 2013, 2 comments
1144
Jun 18, 2011
1017
Apr 19, 2012, 16 comments
785
Dec 31, 2012
453
Apr 23, 2013, 2 comments
291

Besides Mass Effect 3, my top seven posts, by an overwhelming majority, regard nudism and naturism. Contrast that to my Princess Bride review. 33 views total! But wait, you say, type, “nude,” “naked,” “nudist,” or “naturist,” into Google and you’ll get underage girls. For a long time, I assumed my blog was getting porn traffic. However, my top post, at 11,000+, contains no nudity except for side butt (mine). In fact, the only pic to feature a young attractive girl (on this list) sits at the very bottom with 291 views. UPDATE: As of 2017, my most read article, Why Don’t We Live in a Perfect (Nude) World? stands at 30,000 views.

O.K., maybe people like to gawk at weirdos. But responses to my posts have always been positive. So what’s happening here? Quite simply, there is a vested interest in naturism itself, not just in men looking to ogle women, but curiosity about the lifestyle. It’s not just active nudists, but those who have thought about becoming a nudist and were afraid to tell anybody, or teens who wonder (as I used to) why we really have to wear clothes at all, or closet nudists who go buff at home. This is the beauty of the free information age; it allows people with unorthodox viewpoints to share their experiences.

Still, even among the staunchest of free body activists, there exists apprehension. Visit any number of Tumblr sites and you will find countless ordinary folks nude on camera, young and old, male and female alike, proof that communal nudity is far more common than people imagine. It forces me to wonder, just who are all these free spirited individuals? And yet, inspiring as it is to see, they all remain clothed by anonymity. There is truly no way of knowing who these people are. You will hardly ever find a blogger willing to post a nude selfie or their real names. I happen to be a rare exception. One female naturist stated on her blog her case for never posting a selfie, explaining that she was not attractive, and that at any rate she did not want strangers ogling her. Most responses were supportive, including one that said, “Never post a pic on the Internet, because you can’t get it back and who knows what people will do with it!” To them, I would ask, what can someone do with your picture? Worst case I can come up with, your photo gets plastered on every telephone pole in your neighborhood, but even then, so what? We don’t live in medieval villages anymore. No one is going to excommunicate you with a letter “N” on your chest. Look at it another way. Anyone who visits a cycling website (as I do) does not necessarily go to gawk at others riding bikes, and yet every cycling blogger has at least one image of himself on his bike. If you enjoy hitting the beach in nothing but your birthday suit (and how can you not?) why be ashamed to show it? So long as we hide, people will be convinced there is good reason to hide. If the people who stand at the forefront of nudism fear exposure, how can we expect anyone else to come out?

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Naked and proud!

Shame comes from without, from other people. If you woke up tomorrow to find every single person naked, in parks, on beaches, at Disney World, etc., your own shame, whether you were a nudist or not, would quickly disappear. Nudists need to overcome the shame society impresses upon them if they ever hope to change the world. A big part of the gay rights movement is pride. Wherever pro-gay events are happening, the word “pride” is associated with it. There are gay pride film festivals and gay pride parades. Remarkably, gays and lesbians managed to convince the public that homosexuality is nothing to be ashamed of. There is no better way to promote naturism than to show your pride in it. Soon after coming out to the people in my life, I made it a point to go nude in front of them, wherever and whenever possible. I found this to be a lot easier on the Greek islands, on the beach, in hotel rooms, and at my parent’s summer home. Again, I hated the attention, but I knew there was no better way to normalize my way of living. Surprisingly, neither of my sisters, nephews, friends or even their friends objected. It really is remarkable how quickly, once confronted openly and honestly, the shame of nudity dissipates. It’s like an illusion that, once examined up close, you realize was nothing to begin with.

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But wait, you say, not everyone is in the same boat. Some people with religious backgrounds fear the reaction of their parents. For others, the problem is employment. I remember one female blogger in particular, raised in a nudist household, whose teaching position came under fire when her extra curricular activities were discovered. Sadly, and with little fanfare, she was forced to take her blog down. I urge every naturist to stand for their beliefs, but do not judge them if they are afraid to do so.

My situation is unusual. I make a living as a restaurateur, so there is no chance of my termination, but I am also an aspiring author. For the past few years, I have lost sleep wondering how my nudism might affect my literary ambitions. Interestingly, writers are told to: 1) Write their passions and 2) Be original. Every famous writer has a niche, whether it’s Stephen King’s New England themed horror or Tom Clancy’s military thriller. My niche is naturist fantasy, not simply writing about heroes who have adventures in the buff, but exploring aspects of feminism, equality and environmentalism inherent to the naturist perspective. Fantasy novels these days are ripe with rape and torture (see George R.R. Martin), so my fear is not that I may be viewed as obscene, but that I will become in the minds of editors a “nudist” writer, someone who caters to a specific subculture. I live for storytelling, which is far more important to me than going nude. But these passions are intertwined. I cannot write about a character without considering his attitude toward the human body. A hero like Conan, who lusts after every scantily clad maiden, is a far cry from Tarzan, who, to paraphrase Edgar Rice Burroughs, “abhors clothing and all it stands for.”

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My naked heroes: Xandr and Thelana

This brings me to Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, which sold 90 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 45 languages. Ninety-million is a big number. There are certainly not that many involved in the S&M lifestyle. A larger demographic was likely curious, because fiction gives us a way to step into the shoes (or in this case leather pants) of another. By and large, book buyers were not dissuaded by the subject of bondage. The same, I feel, should go for nudism. There are few card carrying nudists in the world, but thanks to the Internet, a rapidly growing curiosity. Just as with the strange world of S&M, it only takes the right book and this undercurrent of interest will break the surface. For this reason, I embrace naturism, proudly exposing myself in words and in pixels.

The heyday of nudism is coming. It will start with bloggers and writers and philosophers, and end with politicians. And when all is said and done, “naturism,” like any needless -ism, will cease to exist.

 

Heroes of Naturism

Just as racism and homophobia exist to varying degrees around the world, so does bigotry against nudists. It might seem offensive to equate the two, but in countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, where women who refuse to cover their faces can be jailed, beaten and raped, the comparison seems more appropriate. Unlike homosexuality, becoming a nudist is a choice, and yet that choice is a fundamental part of my identity. I see little difference between a person’s faith and a belief in the innocence of the human body. The fear that exists among transgendered people, the pressure to conform, to continually hide from scrutiny, are feelings many nudists can relate to.

Nudity harms no one, neither physically nor psychologically, and yet we can never be as we are born, never live as nature intended. The reason is rooted in outdated taboos, from a time when slavery was sanctioned by God, women were stoned for adultery, scientific discoveries like those of Galileo were condemned, and homosexuals were put to death. Our Puritan roots have deeply entrenched in us a fear and hatred for the human body, but what continues to perpetuate this attitude, despite increasing secularism, is a consumer industry which profits from shame, and making people feel unattractive.

To break the nudity taboo, something that perpetuates sexism, body hatred, and an unhealthy sex obsessed society, we need heroes. Every movement needs heroes when society’s mores are challenged. There was a time when racism was sanctioned by the Supreme Court, until people like Frederick Douglas, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King challenged those laws. Up until recently, homosexuals were frequently beaten and arrested, but then Harvey Milk came along to help change attitudes. It’s easy for us to see these people as heroes. Who, today, would deny Rosa Parks a spot at the front of the bus? And yet, people in the fifties did not have the luxury of hindsight—they could not imagine the freedoms we take for granted. For too long, we have hidden behind the walls of our resorts, far removed from the public eye. In general, there has been no way for people to learn about us, and so we are left with ugly stereotypes and misconceptions. Fortunately, there are intrepid individuals who have found the courage to act upon the conviction that the human body is neither indecent nor shameful.

 

Gypsy Taub

My long time readers may be surprised by my inclusion of Gypsy, but after some deliberation, I’ve decided that the movement can only benefit from diverse voices. Personally, I am opposed to Gypsy calling the police “pigs,” and I really, really disparage her wearing dildos in public. But it may be hypocritical for me to take such a hard line approach, when most people find my desire to go au natural equally offensive. No single person on this list has fought more vehemently for naked freedom than Gypsy. She’s held nude rallies in San Fransisco, and once disrobed in the middle of a court hearing regarding a public nudity ordinance, nearly winning the vote in the process. What is perhaps most remarkable, for me, Gypsy is as comfortable in her skin as my naturist heroine, Thelana, going without a stitch on city streets, and while making speeches to large crowds, and on her web series, MyNakedTruth.tv. She’s so often naked, you almost have to wonder whether she owns a pair of underwear.

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While I may not approve of her methods, Gypsy’s commitment continues to inspire (she is in the green hat on the left). You can watch her most famous video here, where she disrobes during a public court hearing.

Dr. Victoria Bateman

Yes, you read that correctly. Perhaps more than anyone on this list, DOCTOR Bateman is the most accomplished, having earned her PHd from the University of Oxford (the most esteemed school on the planet IMO). According to her Wikipedia page: Victoria N. Bateman is a British feminist economist and academic, specialising in macroeconomics and British economic history. She is a fellow in economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Bateman read economics at Cambridge University, before receiving her masters and doctorate degrees from Oxford. More than simply a free body activist, Bateman is an outspoken advocate for women and the rights of sex workers, and a staunch opponent of Brexit, Britain’s decision to separate from the European Union. For anyone who thinks nudists are uneducated, or anti-social lepers, Bateman proves otherwise. In terms of class, she stands polar opposite to someone like Gypsy Taub, but this only goes to show the wide variety of voices that can exist within the nudist community, and that anyone, from any walk of life, can be a nudist. Be sure to watch her anti-Brexit video here.

 

AliaaAliaa Magda Elmahdy 

For a Muslim woman born in Egypt, Aliaa’s courage is particularly inspiring. Nudity in Islam is forbidden in any form, but to expose oneself to the public is more than just a social taboo, it’s a serious crime. By posting a nude selfie on her blog, Aliaa risked imprisonment in a country not known for human rights. This simple act incited outrage throughout the Muslim world, among both liberals and conservatives, and she received threats of rape and murder as a result. But it was all in protest of Sharia Law, a system that treats women more as objects than human beings. To prevent sexual violence, women are expected to dress modestly, but clothing like the burqa, that covers every inch of the body, represents nothing but oppression. What better way to protest the burqa, than its extreme opposite, complete nakedness? As Aliaa herself put it, her photo, “screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy.”

 

MoiraMoira Johnston

Since 1992, women have been legally permitted to go topless in New York City, anywhere in public, wherever men have been traditionally allowed. While feminists cheered, most women continue to be unaware of the law, or if they are, lack the courage to make use of it. One female activist, however, has made it her mission to inform the public via example. This is Moira in the streets. The best part is, people either do not seem to notice her exposed bosom, or simply do not care. It only goes to  prove that common decency isn’t as common as Facebook would have us believe. Watch her video here.

Lady God1va

As her namesake suggests, this stunning beauty* is utterly shameless, and while she does not appear to own a horse, she has taken to cycling in nothing but a helmet (as a cyclist myself—I ride a Trek 7.7 FX, she rides a 7.5—I am a big proponent of safety gear!). OK, to be fair, she doesn’t do this on a daily basis. It’s all part of the World Naked Bide Ride, which she helps to organize every year. On that day, it is not uncommon to see a thousand or more cyclists on the streets of London, missing more than helmets.

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God1va is a British citizen, but she can trace her roots to India, where family tradition is paramount. Coming from a traditional culture myself, I find her confidence all the more inspiring, in that she is not afraid to show the world who she is, at the risk of alienating friends and family. As her blog states, “There was also the fear factor … what if I get recognized by my family/friends? However, having been on TV fully nude at least 4 times a week for about 6 months (repeats!), and having published all my photos on the web, the cat is truly out of the bag and there is no hiding now!” On her blog and in public, Lady God1va continues to express her free body philosophy. In 2009, as part of an art exhibition, she stood completely naked on a plinth before crowds of thousands, holding a placard with the words, “Naturism – It is a human right.” Lady, I couldn’t agree more! Watch the video here. *While I know it’s taboo among naturist circles to judge a person for their looks, I couldn’t help making this remark, as Lady God1va so closely resembles my wife.

 

Luis Andrew Martinez

You know that dream about going to school everyone seems to have? Where you suddenly realize that you’re naked, in front of classmates and teachers? For most people, it’s a nightmare, but for University of Berkeley student, Andrew Martinez, this was his reality. According to Wikipedia: Campus police first arrested him that fall for indecent exposure when he jogged naked late on a Saturday night. The county prosecutor refused to prosecute, concluding that nudity without lewd behavior was not illegal. Martinez began strolling around campus naked, citing philosophical reasons. He explained that when he dressed in expensive, uncomfortable, stylish, “appropriate” attire, he hid the fact that his personal belief was that clothes were useless in his environment except as a tool for class and gender differentiation. The university then banned nudity on campus. Martinez was also arrested in the city for indecency, fought those charges, and won. Later, after an anti-nudity ordinance was adopted, he was given two years probation. Sadly, Andrew Martinez was diagnosed with mental illness, ending his own life in prison in 2006. He was 33. 

 

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Felicity Jones 

Many nudists you meet today, on beaches and at resorts, are over sixty. There is a real scarcity of young people involved in the movement, especially young women. When I attended the University of South Florida, I tried to start a nudist club, but made little headway. In our hyper-sexualized society, where body parts = lust, a woman who shows too much skin is thought to be a stripper, a porn star, or a prostitute. At the very least, a man will ogle a naked woman, especially at a non-nudist venue, unused to seeing a  woman in her natural state who isn’t “asking for it.” At worst, women in the lifestyle risk physical violence. So, simply being young, female, and a naturist takes a lot of courage. Felicity was fortunate enough to have been raised in a nudist household, and as a third generation nudist, body shame was simply something she was never taught. Now she has made it her mission to spread her family’s free body philosophy to the world. As the founder of Young Naturists America, an online organization with thousands of members (including yours truly), she organizes public naturist events, like body painting day in New York, with artist Andy Golub. She is also a prolific blogger, writing on a wide range of subjects, from combating sexism to changing negative body stereotypes.

 

Stephen Gough

Even among nudists, Stephen Gough “the Naked Rambler” is a controversial figure. Gough has been convicted 28 times for 46 offences, mainly in Scotland, where he was repeatedly arrested during attempts to walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats without clothes. He has been sentenced to more than six years in prison in total. Many would argue that he does not belong on this list, and Stephen himself has stated that he is not a nudist. But since there is no consensus as to what nudism is, and considerable misunderstanding regarding its practices and beliefs, I cannot rule him out. Of course, simply being naked does not make one a nudist. Strippers are not nudists. Porn stars are not nudists. Exhibitionists, people who show their bodies for the intended purpose of shocking and offending others, are the extreme opposite of nudists, emphasizing rather than de-emphasizing the body. Nudism, in essence, is a non-thing, the simple belief that the body is good, shameless, and legal. Unless Stephen intended to offend, and I have seen no evidence of this, he is a nudist, whether he says so or not. What truly sets him apart, however, is his willingness to get arrested, time and time again. Many have questioned his obstinance and sanity, but perhaps more than anyone on this list, he has shown us the absurdity of anti-nudity laws, by how much time and government money has been wasted imprisoning him, a man who has done nothing to harm anyone.

 

Miley-Cyrus-Nude-Outtakes-For-Candy-Magazine-11-760x1035Miley Cyrus

She has been exposing herself in videos, magazines and on Twitter, leaving nothing to the imagination. But, unlike Playboy models and porn stars, she has made natural nudity a focal point of her career, claiming that she would like to move to a nudist colony someday. Performers have long relied on controversy to keep the media focused on their careers. Who can forget the Beatles’ hairstyle, Madonna’s infamous Sex book, or Janet Jackson’s nipple slip? But while she may be courting controversy for publicity’s sake, her shameless confidence cannot be denied. Real naturist or not, Miley can only have a positive effect on the movement. In the past, such exposure would have been scandalous, a career ender. Instead, Miley proves how tolerant we have become as a society.

 

Jenny Scordamaglia

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South of the border, we find Jenny Scordamaglia, who has never been one to shy away from the camera. Like few others on this list, she has the remarkable quality of appearing so comfortable in her skin, it’s easy to forget she is naked. Jenny started her career in modeling, but while many women with her looks end up in porn, she’s proven that nudity doesn’t always preclude sex, and that there are many innocent things people can do in the buff. Among these are naked yoga, which is becoming more and more popular these days, and on her cooking show, Naked Kitchen, she cooks, well, you can probably guess (though I do recommend an apron!). Despite her propensity for showing us her goods, Jenny is anything but a brainless bimbo, as her bio attests: She has been a journalist for magazines in Brazil and Peru, published her first book, “Llamado de Atencion,” to help young adults live positively, and in 2009, she hosted the biggest Latin American show from Europe, in the American Airlines Arena in Miami. She was chosen “the voice of Miami,” representing South Florida, for Comcast Xfinity, and in 2012, she opened her first meditation center, “Centro Transformacion,” in Spain. Jenny was also the official host of Miami’s “International Film Festival 2012,” which raised money for Tanzania, South Africa. And in 2013, she launched Miami TV, available on Google Play and iTunes. Learn more about Jenny on her page.

 

I consider these people naturist heroes, for doing more than just writing about nudism, for showing us, through their actions, that there is truly no shame in nakedness. Each found the courage to reject the taboos of the past, risking ridicule and social ostracism, to embolden the rest of us. If we are ever to become free, we must follow their example. If you love being nude, tell your friends. If you have a blog, post an honest selfie, the one that represents who you really are. Go nude wherever you can, and as often as you can, until the unclothed body becomes so common a sight, no one will find it objectionable.

 

UPDATE 01/14/2019: Since I originally created this post four years ago, the number of nude advocates has grown exponentially. More and more, people have been finding the courage to express their true naked selves. I myself have received nothing but positive responses for my articles, nude selfies and videos. It’s truly remarkable to be seeing such radical social change! In this update, I’ve included Gypsy Taub, Doctor Victoria Bateman, and Jenny Scordamaglia.

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An honest selfie

 

Final Thoughts:

I want to address a few points regarding this article.

No. 1. If you’ll notice, there are only two men on this list, as opposed to eight women. While I wish I could have included more males, the reasons I haven’t are multifold. Firstly, I think it’s safe to say that male nudity is treated differently in our society. Men have traditionally enjoyed greater body freedom than women, so a guy going topless in NYC isn’t going to have the safe effect as someone like Moira Johnston. Along the same lines, men in Muslim countries are not made to suffer under a burqa. There’s also the difference between men and women’s attitudes toward sex. Men rarely have to deal with threats of rape, or sexual harassment, so whatever courage a male nudist displays pales in comparison to that of a female. Finally, I find men’s interest in public nudity questionable, in that so often, it has more to do with soliciting women, and personal sexual gratification. We’ve all had to deal with dick pics, but how often do men get harassed by unsolicited vag pics?

No. 2. Almost all of the images I’ve chosen, wherever possible, are full-frontal, including my own. I believe it necessary to show the body in its entirety, and to not be coy with what parts we choose to display, because when you really boil it down, it’s not the body per se people find offensive. If we are ever to overcome our aversion to nakedness, we must become accustomed to the sight of penises and vaginas in all their wondrous variety. We must accept that there is no shame in letting others see these parts of ourselves, that they’re not so different from our ears, noses or elbows. And that starts with full-frontal nudity!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gorgon’s Lover

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Let me tell you how I killed her—how I killed the only woman I ever loved. I am a wretched thing, truly, and have little else to offer but this story. Hear me out, if you are wanting for a tragedy, but I give you fair warning: this is no tale for children or the weak of heart, but a thing to curdle the blood, to raise the small hairs of the body.
To know my story, you must know of how I came to Aea. You have heard tales, no doubt, of that fabled isle where no one knows hunger, where the women are as beautiful and as willing as the nymphs. Aea does not appear on any map, and no two sailors will agree on where to find it, but it is no myth.
In the dawn of manhood I found myself a recluse, wandering between the lands. Having never known family or a home, the world was joyless and bitter, and I unprepared for it, for the way men battled starvation. The gods are angry, people say, so these are dark times. And so life for me was a waiting for death.
War gave me hope for better days. Nibia marshaled its forces against the Dark Hemisphere. There was hope of crushing the bogrens so that men might venture forth without fear to farm what had been despoiled. Bold men and women came from throughout all Ænya, vagabonds such as I, lending their swords to the cause. In this I found purpose, and was determined to it, to win the war alone if need be.
We paraded through the streets, reveling before the first blow was struck. Fate smiled on me, or so I thought, and a new age of prosperity seemed within reach.
We pushed onto that shore of eternal twilight, fighting along the border. The first cycles were promising, merciless. We trampled over bodies, the dead stretching to the horizon, and many of the lost lands were reclaimed. The Nibian commander, his heart bolstered by victory, longed to push deeper into that sunless land, to make it so that no bogren could challenge mankind again. But soldiers who had not blinked before uncounted hordes fled upon crossing into that accursed wasteland. Our commander was accused of hubris; they said such vanity was an affront to the gods. Fearing mutiny, we were led back to the western hemisphere. Everyone was in good spirits but I, who longed to spill more of the blood of those mongrels.
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After two cycles marching across cold dead rock, the sun began to show on our faces. We boarded a ship, which seemed safest passage to Nibia as bogrens have deathly fear of water, but our eyes never met that familiar shore. The fleet met with a storm, churning, black, unholy as Hades. Debris ripped the hull to pieces and all but two joined Sargonus, God of the Sea, in the depths. I was the one. The other was a soldier and a friend of mine. His name was Valis.
We clutched at the splintered hull until our fingertips were raw and swollen, our throats parched, our shoulders simmering under the intense gaze of the sun. Adrift in misery, we longed to have died honorably on the battlefield. But we shuddered at the thought of our bodies being desecrated, used by bogrens in some perverse, ungodly ritual.
Sargonus took pity on us, or so I believed. I woke with a hard stretch of earth beneath my cheek, and in the bright blaze of morning the sand was radiant and golden and blessedly coarse against my fingertips. Within a few paces, Valis stood shakily, and I was overjoyed to see him. For a brief moment, I hoped we’d died on a good day and journeyed to Alashiya. But as strength returned to my limbs, I realized that I was not gone to the Taker, but trapped in the same emaciated body. With great effort, I pushed myself from the tide coursing through the fringes of my beard, my body heavy as if bound in bronze. Wasted with hunger, my ribs could easily be counted beneath the skin. I squinted through salt lined eyelids toward brilliant clover-green hills, to icy peaks touching the sky. Was I in paradise? Ages adrift in briny waters, any land would have been.
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That night, we camped on the beach, resting against a reef which cut against the tide like the keel of a ship. When the light of morning pried open our eyes, we foraged for clams and seaweed, and after regaining some strength, I studied the zigzag rim of mountains to determine what kingdom we’d been tossed upon.
We set out for civilization on the second day, falling speechless before the unfolding coastline. The cliffs lifted from the Sea like wild, white brush strokes, and the Sea was tranquil as a pond. We could not tell where waves met sky, but for a silver, translucent disc—the moon—mirrored in the ripples of the waters.
We continued along the beach, seeking a path through the rocks, till coming upon sections of colonnades jutting from the rock as if long ago abandoned. Lying across the water, a hundred paces from shore, was a half-submerged statue—a robed woman—whose glaring eye could have eclipsed the sails of our ship. It was there we first glimpsed signs of life, clinging to the mountainside and all about the arms of a harbor, atop islets rising in loops from the waves: houses, gleaming whitely in the sun, with domes and doors and shutters awash in blue.
A half day trek through dense foliage and we came to a clearing of huts made of mud and straw. The islanders went about without clothing of any kind, oblivious to shame or modesty. They were adorned only in trinkets of bone, lapis lazuli or gold, and with patterns of tattooing or branding. With our clothing in tatters, we’d feared the natives might take us for vagabonds, but seeing how it did not matter, we discarded what shreds still clung to our bodies and went about as the natives.
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Like no other people I’d known, the islanders devoted themselves to leisure, to singing and dancing and to spinning pottery into every shape of the imagination. They moved with such gaiety, you might think their feet never touched the earth. At last I had found . . . a radiant people. For them, there was no age of darkness. Here was no hint of misery. In that moment I began to feel, in that most simple state of being, the weight of existence lift from my shoulders.
Though we could not imagine such people harming us, we were too accustomed to suspicion to walk out into the open. And though practicing their custom of nakedness, we resembled outcasts in that we were in need of grooming.
On the third day, Valis stole a knife of volcanic glass from a hunter, resisting the urge to cut more than a morsel from the spit where a boar had been roasting. I gazed longingly at my friend as he ate, fearing how closely I must resemble him. The greasy sliver of meat fell with a thump into my stomach and the succeeding sensation of hollowness only increased my hunger. At last we resolved to cut our beards, and when we sufficiently resembled the islanders, set out for the blue and white domiciles.
The islanders strolled past us, our emergence met with indifference, for we were no more haggard than the fisherman with his carts of tangled netting. The youth and the poor went about as freely as the primitives in the woods, but the highborn women of childbearing age went to market in pleated robes, as the men labored in kilts and sandals. Despite the urge to learn more about this strange land, we held our tongues.
With the memory of boar still on our palettes, hunger continued to gnaw at us, but Valis and I were without anything to barter. We could not hope even to kill for food, as our weapons were lost to the depths.
Coming upon the city center, we were taken aback by what such a simple people had made. Save for Hedonia with its towering domes and pediments, we’d never witnessed such architecture. Three temples stood, mirroring one another, forming a square. Joy and wonderment and hope mixed in our throats, believing that, as in our own places of worship, the temples must serve as houses of charity.
We made our way to the east temple, eager to hide from the sun amid long columns of shadow. Strange gods of stone frolicked along the pediment, but we did not hesitate to pass under the threshold where the air was cool and crisp.
What came to greet us loosed our hearts like racing horses. The clerics of the temple were women, beautiful beyond measure, formed from the stuff of men’s fantasies. They were in states of undress, in hanging silk and peels of gold, in peacock feathers worn in ways that excited our curiosity. Their beauty overcame even the bray of my stomach, reminding me of another, long forgotten hunger. Valis and I were welcomed with butterfly eyelashes, with gestures of hand and hip. What the priestesses discovered must have been pleasing to them and I suppose that even in our haggard state Valis and I were handsome, for one of the older women spoke and we were led into a cavernous space.
We lifted sun beaten eyes to the welcoming lips of a nude goddess. Between her ankles, in a mosaic of splendorous hues, was a clear pool. Without a word, they proceeded to strip off their loose garments, stealing imagination from my mind, and like children we were led to bathe. Fingers soft and white as pearl brushed against me. Hands from many bodies probed my war ravaged frame like serpents seeking to feed. With every caress—a hard day’s marching, a night shivering in hunger, a friend wailing in blood—one by one the memories left me like dead leaves in the gale.
We learned that this was the Temple of Irene, Goddess of Love and Peace. Of the other two goddesses we did not bother ask. We were mesmerized by beauty. And my friend and I were given everything a man might crave, food and clothing, and a warm body to spill our seed.
The nightly orgies became all, and our hearts were enslaved. The women explored each perverse action with abandon, indulgences of which I am too shamed to describe. How many succumbed to me, or I, rather, to their lustful appetites, I dare not count. Every eye and lip, bosom and hip and buttocks, became indistinct in the sweat, in the revelry—their names unspoken, unremembered.
This was my poison, as deadly as any bogren’s dagger. The moons came and went and came again, and I no longer waited for night with zeal but dreariness. As for my companion, he never tired of his new existence, continuing into each night as if his lust could only grow out of depravity.
Though my body was restored, a great gaping emptiness was left in me, as if I’d been torn open by a mortar. Despising the wretch I had become, I longed to hold a sword again, to hear the dying of my enemy. Driven mad by the sensation, I abandoned my sanctuary to explore the others, wondering if they, too, functioned as consecrated whorehouses. The central temple was the most grand, a shrine to Zoë, goddess of Life, Wisdom and Balance. Only women served the goddess, their beauty paling before what I had known, but unlike those whores who knew to satisfy only the flesh, the servants of Zoë were wise in philosophy and astronomy. By then, I could understand a little of the Aean language, and with the aid of a Zoë priestess, I learned to speak fluently.
The third temple honored Maki, of War and Virtue. This is where I found my true self . . . and my greatest cause for grief.
***
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Her name was Midiana. Hers is the face burned under my eyes, the image that shines alone in the darkness.
The goddess in her battle helmet, with her sword and shield of serpents, possessed a hard, somber beauty that made me feel intimidated. At Maki’s heel, a priestess was kneeling with bird seed as snow-white peacocks, camouflaged against the stone, nipped at her palms. She was half in silhouette, the shadows playing across the nape of her neck where the torchlight touched her. Her hair was black as pitch against the gleaming white of her chiton, every strand threaded into braids as thick as ropes. When she noticed me, it was like looking into the sun—there was such beauty to be found in those ample lips and dark amber eyes—so much like a bird’s eyes—I feared to go blind dare I stare too long.
The priestess was in shock, scattering seed everywhere as the great white birds scampered after it. To my inquiries, she responded with measured and quavering lips, as her forearm hid the sight of me. I’d feared such a reaction cycles ago, upon first engaging the islanders, but was unprepared for it now that I had come to know, in more ways than one, the locals of Aea. She was quick to make it known that nakedness was forbidden in the temple, and I felt suddenly ashamed, for I’d grown accustomed to not wearing clothes. She went on to tell me that no male was to step foot over the goddess’ threshold, that even the white birds sacred to Maki were female. Confounded by the extreme difference of customs, I could do nothing but apologize and take my leave.
As morning crept under my eyes, I realized sleep had not taken me the whole of the night. And I knew, like the bee born knowing of the flower, the hollowness I’d long suffered was for her—that nothing could fill the gaping in me but her presense.
Mystified, I returned to the east temple, to find comfort in the company of my old companion. But by that time, he was no more the proud warrior who’d slaughtered bogrens by my side. He had grown, in fact, quite pale, and his belly sagged about the waist, and like a fattened hog he lolled about in nothing but a crown of laurel leaves. I found him on the steps, like a king retired from conquest, laughing like a fool at some base amusement. I pitied what he’d become, but had not the strength to tell him. Upon seeing me, his face brightened, and I told him of the beautiful priestess girl and my pining for her. As a remedy, he invited me to a frolic with the devotees of Irene. My heart did not rise to the idea, but I agreed to join him.
The air was heavy and wet with jasmine and rosewater, and the music of the lyre echoed from the chambers of the sacred pools where stone gods gazed with coy smiles and mock shame. The women in the dim firelight were young and shapely and eager to please, but to the abasement of my pride, I was powerless to engage in the act. I had cycles in which to spill my seed, but again I felt, more than ever, that sense of repulsion.
I abandoned the temple, restless and alone beneath the great moon. The bright turquoise disc seen by kingdoms near and far reminded me of my wandering days, and the vast spread of constellations looked distantly on me in my isolation.
Dressed in a borrowed chiton, I found her in an orchard behind the Temple of Maki, with a rake of sorts, beating olives into a basket. But she did not know me. Was I forgotten so quickly? How awful that seemed when I’d studied her every line for hours, grating thin my brain with the thought of her!
With greatest care to not mangle her language, I offered her my name. It sounded oddly from her lips, my name echoing in her exotic, dulcet inflection like a butterfly painted in vibrant colors I’d never before seen. As politeness was custom, she introduced herself also; ­Midiana, she told me she was called, but it was more than a name to me; it was a magic word, a secret spell of power. Tradition forbade her from speaking further, she explained, but after decades of peace and prosperity the law had become lax. Nevertheless, she made it known that I was never to touch her—that to graze a single of her hairs was sacrilege. Foolhardy as a man is in his youth, I did not heed the little wisdom that was in me, but persisted.
Worlds divided us . . . I was like a bird who loves a fish, and the sense of awkwardness was like a fist in my gut. Did she look away from me with disgust for my sex, or fear for her god? Were her words, tipped with ice, out of indifference, or something more sinister?
Keeping at arm’s length, I raised an empty basket and a rake. We worked alongside one another in silence but for the subtle swish and thump of dropping olives. My forearms became sore and my brow sweaty as the day wore on and the sun grew hotter and higher. She, all the while, moved lightly as a moth, her bare feet turning in a kind of dance to each tree.
With five bushels full and only the bright green of unripe fruit left on the branches, I chanced to ask of the island and of her religion, and of things already known to me so that I might listen to the song of her voice. Like a cleric eager to convert one to their faith, her tongue came unknotted, and she began to explain many things.
Maki delivers punishment to those who blaspheme her or her sisters, Zoë and Irene. The goddess also protects the island from foreigners. Ships wandering close to Aea are split apart by storms. I am ashamed to admit that, even as she told me this, it did not occur to me to think upon my own lost crew. Love for my fellow comrades paled to nothing before her beauty. Both sexes worship idols of Maki, but only a woman can be called to divine the will of the gods. As in every aspect of Aean culture, the female is dominant. Even in war, women go into battle. A female follower of Maki knows a man only in marriage, but a priestess can never be touched by the male sex.
After a little while—or was it many hours?—no more questions could bridge the distance between us; and her eyes—in which I’d found sanctuary from the cold hard surfaces of existence—drifted away from me. I became an apparition beside her, of no more consequence than the moonlight in her hair. Her indifference, and my powerlessness, gnawed at my innards until I could suffer it no longer, and with little ceremony I crept off into the night.
For some days I continued to lend her my hands. When cloistered in the temple, I awaited her from afar. Once, she shooed me away, so that other priestesses not discover me. At any moment she could have had me banished, and it gave me hope when she did not.
With the cycle of the moons, I learned the pattern of her outings, for the temple priestesses, even those of Irene, functioned in an orderly manner. When Midiana remained indoors to pray, I found comfort in solitude, in roaming the hills and the dry brush wilderness about the outskirts of the city.
One day she was in the courtyard with a sword. Her movements were graceful, hypnotic, but of little use in battle. I knew the priestesses of Maki were warriors, but peace had dulled their skills. Their training was now ritual, more art than war. She took great care presenting the sword to me, and I resisted the urge to brush a fingertip against her. The hilt was exceedingly ornate, looping patterns etched in gold and jade, like the bands about her forearms. Her face watched me from the mirror surface of the blade. I showed her how to use it, how to kill with it, swinging the weapon with such force that I feared to snap it in twain. Each thrust was to a vital part of the body: the underbelly, the knees, the part of the neck that separates the head . . .
Midiana was fascinated, and it was not long before the thread of her questions turned to me and my origins. She confessed in never knowing battle, and when I related tales of the Nibian War, she quivered with horror, finding the whole bloody ordeal too awful to listen to. At birth, a priestess is chosen to be raised in one of the three temples, but Midiana was not, nor could ever be, a warrior.
We practiced swordplay until our shadows stretched across the courtyard, and I dared to ask if it was not sacrilege to change her fate, to perhaps become a priestess of Zoë, but she withdrew from me like a frightened hare. I did not see her after that for two days, and cursed my tongue for separating me from my love.
When my eyes touched sight of her again, she drifted through the temple’s colonnades burdened and insignificant between the massive stone columns weighing upon her. And then she chanced to lift her gaze to see me and was weightless again. Love radiated as the sun upon the world, and as her eyes lingered on mine, more was spoken between us than any words can convey. We were separated by ten paces, mouthing words of affection, and then she was called away.
When the sun was deep in the moon and all were in dreams, we carried on in hushed, frightful voices. She was more beautiful than any goddess could ever be, with hair a deep violet in the moonlight, crowned by the pinks and violets of the bougainvillea climbing the pillars of the gazebo where we sat. With tears that glistened like diamonds, she lamented her fate—how she could not abandon the priesthood to become my wife. I was taken aback to hear it, having doubted the depth of her love for me. At once, I grieved for us, and confessed all that was in me, and in hearing it she showed no apprehension, but soaked up my words as if she could not survive otherwise. I vowed to return and to sit by her, till my limbs no longer carry me, if only to adore her with eyes and ears. With that, she tore at her robes as if burning in them, letting the once noble cloth in tatters, and embraced me. I did what was in my nature, touching wherever her fingers led me, and no part of her remained sacred.
We found warmth in the cool twilight air. With the sun behind Infinity, we were as united silhouettes, but we dared not be discovered and hid like shamefaced children in a copse of basil. That was time enough for me to regain my reasoning, and like removing an arrow from my side, I suggested we abstain from doing what we had been about to, my fear for her great. At this she flew into a rage, pulling at her braids, clawing at her skin, and I was astounded to hear her cursing Maki with the foulest of obscenities, vowing to offer up her maidenhood should it mean her death. I shuddered at the oath, but she persisted, and whatever power I had to resist her wasted away, and hand-in-hand we ventured into the temple, our hearts thrumming in our chests. “It’s the only place,” she murmured, “where we will not be seen.” I asked about the other priestesses, but she assured me that they were deep in the slumber of undiluted wine and could not be awakened. “No one will know,” she added, and I nodded, captivated by her will, tailing her into the Shrine of Maki.
Across a floor of semiprecious stones, before the eyes of that wrathful goddess, in that sacred chamber where no male was to set foot, I seized her body and she mine. Nude and entwined, we gave shape to our love, and worshipped each other in words and actions. And though the walls echoed with her elation, we continued untamed, freely exploring every facet that made us man or woman, relishing in our bonded flesh all the more in that we defiled the sanctity of the temple.
What possessed us so? What devils of lust turned us to madness? Was it mere love? I cannot say. When the deed was done, we lay wet and breathy in each other’s arms. I felt the victor of a great battle, of a great war, but the moment of ecstasy, of bliss, was fleeting. Spread and broken and overflowing white with seed, Midiana turned to me and whispered, with such shuddering fear I cannot ever hope to forget,
“. . . What have we done . . .?”
Wisdom erupted from my brain into my consciousness, but it was for naught, for what I witnessed then was a terror beyond comprehension. Sensing some motion in the corners of my eye, my head froze upon the ceiling, fixed upon the scowling face of a living, breathing idol.
“MIDIANA,” the goddess bellowed, and my love shot upward, shaking gruesomely with terror, desperately clutching the remains of her robe to hide her nakedness. Oh, how she turned pale, and fell on her face in penitence! Alas, how she wept for mercy before that somber, pitiless visage. I could hear her murmuring, like a small child, “Forgive . . . forgive . . .” But the idol did not care to listen, delivering justice with its massive, pointing finger. Midiana jolted, like a fish on an invisible hook, and her chiton dropped weakly from her fist. With panic and rage, I demanded to know what was happening to my beloved. But already I could see it. Midiana’s figure convulsed like a marionette on the strings of a drunken puppeteer. Her fair flesh was turning hard and pressing up through the skin: scales. As I stood, powerless and desperate, the goddess’ words hammered in my ears: “FOR SUCH SACRILAGE, THERE SHALL BE NO DELIVERANCE FROM ME, AS YOU HAVE SWORN—BUT LIFE IMMORTAL! AS GREAT THE GIFT OF BEAUTY THAT YOU HAVE KNOWN, SO SHALL YOU KNOW, FOR AS LONG AS THE STARS BURN: UGLINESS. AND ALL WHO SEE YOU WILL SHUDDER AND BECOME UNMOVING, AND BECOME LIKE STONE.”
I reached out, to snatch her from that judgment, my eyes following her transformation as if to steal her beauty in memory. But she stumbled away, hiding her face with a claw that once had been a hand. “Titian!” she wailed, in a voice I accepted, with great reluctance and despair, to be hers. She begged me not look, and in that there was no other way to ease her suffering, I did as she asked and turned away. With what little sanity endured in her, she pleaded that I flee. Despite her new form, my love endured, but I knew that whatever stood before my clenched eyelids was far from human, far from my Midiana . . . so I abandoned her, looking back once to see a shadow across the breast of a lifeless statue, and oh how that writhing shadow made me shiver and look once more away.

***

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Waves crashed against the reef, collapsing over my waist in a cold frothy mist. I’d often visit that rock to listen to the waters and remember my life before Aea. The shore was at thirty paces, and I could still see the depression of our camp in the sand. More than ever, I longed for peace in my soul, for the freedom from worry granted in death. If only I were as fortunate as my Nibian crewmen to never again know the burden of living!
Without her, I was an empty shell, without will, without a soul. But guilt was my tormentor, for I was to blame for Midiana’s affliction, I who envied the loveliest ilm in the garden, having ripped her from the roots so her loveliness decay. Maki, that cruelest of gods, found fault in the innocent. I deserved to be cursed . . . I who had wallowed in that cesspool of flesh, in that den of whores . . . what had Midiana known of such debauchery?
Alas, there was no sacrifice to make to undo this evil. I cried until my throat gave out, so that my own gods might hear, yet they were deaf to me. As the echo of my anguish carried out to Sea, something glittered in my sight. Embedded in a reef, beaded in the salty spray, was a familiar length of silver. Had the gods taken pity on me after all? Seeing my old sword again conjured bitter joys of bloodshed. Torn between those twin tidal forces of existence, between thoughts of love and thoughts of death, the dreadful solution became clear. Remembering the oath she had made, I vowed by my sword she’d not live a monster.
I walked straightway from the beach, and in that it was midday, the sun beat down on me and I succumbed to delirium. The sword burdened my shoulder with more weight than ever on the battlefield. Had I grown weak since coming to the island? Or was it the heaviness of the deed that pulled on me? Never had I lifted my sword with the intent to murder; how could I turn it against one I adored? But was any part of her still my Midiana? Would she recognize me, or was her mind transformed as well? The more I thought on these things, the more uneasy I became, and nearing the city as I had a hundred times before, I fancied it all a dream. After all, who could have believed it?
Clouds rolled over the city, like those which had brought ruin to the Nibian vessel, casting a gloom over the rooftops and gardens and fountains, the deepest part of the storm looming above the square with its three temples. I had never seen a sunless day on Aea. It was now evident, to all the islanders, that some curse had befallen them.
Above the Temple of Maki, the storm churned angrily like some living thing, like a black whirlpool in the sky. Thousands were gathering there, and the shadows were thick as pitch, revealing each face in sharp relief. To my utter amazement, vines had grown overnight, wrapping every pillar in thorns, weaving across the steps and down from the pediment. Not a gossiping murmur came from the islanders, not a fearful gasp. It was as if they were holding a silent vigil for a procession of the dead. Only their shuffling feet broke over the rumble of the sky, as the people were drawn, trancelike, to the befouled temple. But the islanders kept at a distance as if what had infected the walls might also infect them. My heart throbbed with guilt to see it, a people of such free spirit, of such playfulness and innocence, now muted and pitiable like the condemned marching to execution. I wanted to surrender myself to them. I hungered for their scorn, their jeers, but such emotion was beyond their capacity.
They parted to let me through like docile sheep. Deep into the crowd, I came upon a chain of priestesses, linked wrist-to-wrist before the temple. I recognized their faces and was ashamed, remembering what they had done to me, and I to them. Zoë’s acolytes were there also, as were the women from the befouled temple, yet all stood united in the same pure white garment with gold lace about their ankles and hair. Love and Wisdom and Virtue stood together, penitent before the angered god. Beneath that great churning cloud, every face was statuesque, every chin high and proud, no woman less than another. The Priestesses of Aea were joined in a ring like rigid columns beneath an invisible circular temple, their chanting a low murmur of contrition.
Others looked on with reverence, their eyes glazed with zealotry, but I was far from owing respect to that god of cruelty. I pulled a young girl out of her ritual, demanding to know what was happening. “Maki is angry,” she told me, and a follower of Zoë added, “The balance has been broken.” She looked as frightened and helpless as the rest. I asked if anyone had gone in. “Only one,” a voice replied. It was a woman who had known Valis and me intimately. Her face was solemn and world weary, as a mother with aged children, the perverse rituals I’d known of her seeming unthinkable. “Your friend, Valis . . .” she murmured. “We tried, but nothing could dissuade him. He was adamant to find you.”
“Let me go,” I cried, but they would not let me through the ring, and many more turned to me, saying it was forbidden. Hearing the word forbidden loosed something dark within me, and I fell into frenzy, pulling apart their joined hands.
I cut through the web of thorns and crossed into that vast, cold lair. With my sword tight against me, I moved inward, the mosaics on the walls turning monstrous in the flickering light. Rows of fluted marble flanked my sides. Barrel arches beckoned to infinity, like when a mirror reflects upon another. Like a prowling thief I searched the temple, hiding from pillar to pillar. My friend I could not hear, nor Midiana; and I dared not call out for fear of what might answer. In the deadening silence, my breathing was like a windstorm, the crackling and popping of unseen torches like thunder.
The memory of Midiana’s beauty contested with my dreadful imagination, and I recognized the morbid curiosity in me, to look wide eyed upon what she had become. But the deeper I probed in the gloom of the temple, the more the thought terrified me. How grotesque can a living thing be? Would Maki’s words ring true? Would my mental faculties withhold? I was more frightened than in the heart of the Dark Hemisphere, for death is a trifling thing, a peaceful repose, but to lose one’s sanity is to live a nightmare from which there is no waking.
Answering my thoughts, I crossed upon a long shadow and the silhouette of a man. I knew it to be Valis, but what I discovered struck me with both awe and despair. Valis stood, ashen as the marble at his feet, his every follicle a thorn. Did the shadows deceive me? No. I looked into his face, into pupils like inkblots fixed in the chalk white orbs of his eyes. Whether living or dead, I could not say, for there was no trace of life within him but that he remained standing. I went to rouse him only to snap my hand away, for what I had touched was nothing like flesh. All the warmth in that virile body had gone. Like weathered flagstone, I expected his arm to break off should I touch it again. And then the inkblots moved, and I leapt, catching a scream in my throat.
My love for him bolstered my courage, and placing my ear to his marble cold lips, I bid he speak to me.
“I came to look for you.” It was so subtle a sound that I doubted it, whether coming from him or my own skull. But then he was pleading, begging, as if he knew I would not obey. “Don’t look at her, Titian! Don’t look at her! Turn back!”
His final breath escaped with those words, and I grieved for my friend, for his senseless death on my behalf. There was no denying that he was victim to Maki’s curse, that upon seeing my priestess, Valis was changed into something less like flesh and more like stone. Stricken by his fate, my heart gave way to such terror, I feared the blood might burst out of me completely. One thought kept me from breaking my vow and fleeing, and I spoke it aloud, so the walls echo with her name. Love remained, greater than any fear.
Turning in search of her, something crept beneath my feet with such a noise that the hairs on my neck pricked in warning, and then a human shape, familiar yet strange, silhouetted the light from the adjoining hall. My sweat turned to ice and my spine became limp as straw. I could do nothing but run, gripped by such dread I worked my feet awkwardly across the floor like a crippled soldier.
Where was I headed? Back to the comfort of daylight? But already that voice, that horrid voice was calling me. I prayed for deafness, imagining what such a creature might be to make that sound, and I accepted Valis’ wisdom, never turning to face what chased me.
The temple became a maze of shadows and flames and fluted colonnades. Gasping at air like a dying fish, I found shelter by the one torch still burning, before that scowling idol of Maki. At my feet, a splendor of multicolored stones fanned out, and in my mind’s eye our naked and entwined bodies groped like ghosts across the mosaic.
I had hoped the monster to avoid the light, to hide its ugliness in darkness, but her shape was already forming about my eyes, and I was amazed by its size, for surely it stood above me! And that awful voice came again, and I could no longer deny it . . . the sounds it had been making—over and over amidst those tortured syllables—was my name.
“Do you not still love me, Titian? Why do you flee from me?”
“Midiana!” I cried weakly, ashamed that I could not bear to lift my eyes, my sword slipping from my numb and quaking fingers.
Her answer was acid in my ears, “I am no longer she, but the guardian of the Shrine of Maki.”
Redemption was beyond me, yet I fell to my knees, my hands as blindfolds, begging that she show some sign of her former self, some understanding of me and my remorse.
“Look at me!” she wailed, her shadow suggesting a darting, slithering motion, “See what you’ve made me!”
Embattled by love and pity and shame and remorse, I wept. I wept and like a madman beat at my naked breast.
It—or she—moved within my circle of light. I could sense her presense, creeping like maggots, her tortured voice riddling me with gooseflesh, “Titian! Oh, Titian . . .! Truly, you must love me, for even as I am, you return to me. Now we shall be together forever.”
Only then did I come to understand, with a sickness growing in my heart, the full extent of Maki’s curse—for our love had not been abolished, but perverted, twisted into a thing unrecognizable and repulsive. Cast into madness, I screamed, throwing down the torch stand. But the fire still flickered from the mosaic, and by chance she hooked my eye, and I saw where the light crept over the rough surface of a reptilian thing with cream-colored fish eyes in what vaguely suggested a woman’s—Midiana’s—face. I turned as if blinded by a wasp’s stinger, but I could still feel her caress drawing lines of blood across my shoulders. If not for the sword at my ankle reminding me of my vow, I might have stood there forever, blinded and quivering in her embrace.
To be done mercifully, I knew, was to be done quickly, but even then, even then, I loved her. And in that moment’s pity, something writhed about the edges of my sword, a tangle of braided serpents, their fangs pressing like needles into my lips, nose, working their way through my clenched eyelids. Her claws were at my throat now and the wiry serpents continued to nip and draw blood. I was paralyzed, the sword unwieldy in her embrace. But then I remembered the torch stand, and righting it with my heel, the monster recognized its hideousness upon the surface of my steel and recoiled. I struck at her. The blade lodged into hard flesh and cold blood oozed against my bosom. Her anguished screams would have torn the sanity from any man, yet I blotted all but my aim, and realizing I had yet to cut through bone, struck again and freed my love.
As the monster fell away, something rolled over my feet, and I dared to look, seeing braids where there had been serpents. With Midiana’s head removed, the goddess’ curse was lifted. She looked peaceful, asleep in death. I cradled her head, washing her brow in tears, and with every kiss upon those rose red lips, my heart throbbed as if to burst.
Too brief a time was given me. Her face was turning pale and cold, her beauty restored only to wilt. Like a knife in the sternum, I realized what I had paid for my obsession. Of this life which I so detested, I loved but two things, Valis and Midiana . . .
The world was now empty and I wished for nothing but to bring my sword to my throat, to join my friend and my lover. But I had more evil to do. Lifting my sword from the multicolored tile, I made for that scowling idol. Sparks rained down from the goddess’ marble heel as I attacked it, over and over, as though the tower of stone could die.
My hatred was spent upon Maki until my arms gave out, but it was their woeful gasps that made me surrender.
“Enough!”
The High Priestess of Zoë, my tutor of the Aean language, was watching me. Every priestess, from every temple, was with her. “You have done enough harm,” she said. “Leave now. Men are forbidden here.”
Something monstrous stirred in me, at the reverence for that evil deity, at the lack of bereavement for their fallen sister. And then many things happened at once. I turned to the idol and they moved against me. When the blood cooled and I came again to my senses, three women lay at my feet, a crimson color spreading across their pure white garments. One of them had been my lover in the Temple of Irene.
At the sight of the massacre, I awaited their rage, their hatred. I wanted nothing more than to die at their hands. But they did not move against me. Their eyes were full of fear and pity and sorrow, but rage and hatred was not known to them.
“You disrespect this holy place,” the High Priestess said, “you do not accept the Tenets of Maki; and yet, did you not partake in the ceremonies of the flesh?”
I was dumbfounded by the question, and ashamed, and my sword grew heavy at my fingertips.
“You cannot revere one god and blaspheme another. There must be balance between them. In your lands, there is only war and desolation. You came here, envying our prosperity, yet you cannot accept the balance which grants us peace.
“Leave this island now. Leave never to return, never to speak of it to outsiders, for your kind is unworthy of paradise.”
That night, I claimed the bodies of Valis and Midiana, letting their ashes rise to the gods from the pyre I set upon the beach. When dawn broke upon my restless eyes, I commissioned a boat for my departure, and the gods favored me with a strong wind in my sails.
***
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